272 Santa Barbara, CA: November, Washington Square

Santa Barbara, California: November, Washington Square

Santa Barbara is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, a former winter getaway for the wealthy. Palm-lined beaches overlook the Pacific, and moderate breezes wash down the mountain ranges behind the city, bathing it in a mild climate year-round. Million-dollar homes abound, and double-digit million houses are common. Ronald Reagan lived in Santa Barbara, and Michael Jackson's Neverland was nearby. A soap opera called Santa Barbara remains one of the most watched TV shows on the planet.

Some of the wealthy associated with Santa Barbara were industrialists from other less-gentle-climated cities who retreated here in winter. It was Chicagoan Sterling Morton and his wife Preston who donated the Hopper to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The museum began in 1933, when the U.S. Postmaster granted a special dispensation to hang an art exhibition in an abandoned post office building. The museum eventually bought the white-faced Spanish-style former post office and opened on June 5, 1941 at exactly 11:43 a.m. (in true California style, determined by an astrologer as the most auspicious time).

February, Santa Barbara, when I visited, had warm temperatures and leaved trees. It was like a fantasy compared to the cold hard slap in the face of November, Washington Square. The painting shows the Judson Church across Washington Park from Hopper's studio. The church's square tower culminates in a yellow cross atop a red tile roof. Banks of clouds bookend a swath of blue sky that leads your eye right to the belltower and plays well off of the church's yellow. The buildings are all linear, while the park spaces at bottom are circular. Prominent in the foreground is a denuded tree.

November, Washington Square was unique among the Hopper paintings I was seeing, in that it was begun in 1932 but not finished until 1959. He was waiting to fill in the sky until he found one acceptable. Perhaps word that Preston Morton was in New York purchasing large blocks of art motivated him to finish an old canvas so Rehn would have one to show her. Another sign that Hopper might have been rushing the product was a condition report that noted: "The stretcher may not have been the original." This delay also possibly made this canvas unique among all of Hopper's for another reason. Hopper switched from zinc white to lead white in 1938 after he noticed that the white parts off his earlier paintings were cracking. This might be the only canvas of his to contain both types of white paint. Even Jo admitted, "Colors and canvas unknown, probably zinc white." (Not only might Santa Barbara's Hopper be unique, they might have another Hopper work. In their files, I found a curious tag on the back of a New York City dinner invite that had "November, Wash Square Edward Hopper" written on it in what looked like Hopper's writing.)

Up strolled a couple in their 40s. She had blond hair, a bulbous nose, and tiny red lips. She wore a black-and-tan webbed dress that looked like a body stocking over the top of which her breasts spilled. Even with the extremely high stiletto heels on her black boots, she only stood about five feet tall. The man was over six feet tall, with green eyes and hair parted in the middle and swept into a duck tail in back. He wore jeans and a short-sleeved charcoal gray T-shirt covered by a light sleeveless sweater. One gold chain choked his hairy, thick-muscled forearm.

"I don't feel that way in Santa Barbara," he looked down at the floor and answered soft-spokenly with a gravely voice, "because Santa Barbara, for me, puts on a kind of touristy, happy face. When we go out in the streets amongst everybody, we have a very quick and easy contact. By way of comparison, I might mention that I went to Montreal a couple of times--Montreal, Canada--and when I was there I noticed the people would not have eye contact on the street. And I have a friend who's sort of a 'get-in-your-face' kind of guy, and he would employ his technique to do just that. And we would many times hear from people, 'Gee I've lived in this city for many years and I've never had a conversation with somebody like we're having now.' Perhaps people are that way as a way of giving respect to the other person, so they don't obligate you to fall into a conversation with them. When I compare that with the kind of atmosphere we have here in Santa Barbara, [here] it's more open and social, and contact is easy. If somebody wants to talk to them, well, it's time to talk to them. You don't feel a chill factor here, do you?" he asked his companion. She whispered to him in an Eastern European accent something that I couldn't decipher.

"Did we answer your question, by the way?" he followed up. "Repeat your question to me."

"Do you feel the people in your community are as isolated as Hopper portrayed his characters?"

"Okay," he registered. "Absolutely not. No. I would say that it's not."

"No," the woman curtly offered. "There are a lot of connections going on. It's a good community for everybody socializes."

"A friend of mine," the man launched into a story, "called me from Santa Barbara last night; he was in the streets. His car broke down. He realized that the last bus had left the city. When I picked him up and took him home, he said, 'My God, you don't know the strange feeling I had being downtown knowing that I didn't have transportation and there was no way that I could get home. And the streets were like empty.' I said, 'Did you feel like you were in a tin can?' And he said, 'Yeah, exactly.'"

"There's might have been taxis," she pointed out. "Taxis will come any time."

"Well, yeah," he conceded, "Sure. But that was the feeling he experienced. Not that it was necessarily that way. Maybe it was his own mood or something."

She looked away. "Maybe you should put him in New York and see how he does there. I feel very safe in Santa Barbara. It doesn't matter what time of day or night. You know, you hear stories that things happen."

"Well," he conciliated, "by way of contrast, I may mention that I spent some time in Mexico in some of the villages, and I was able to walk in the streets almost any time of night and never felt that feeling whatsoever. You always felt safe." He broke off and asked me, "Are you studying Edward Hopper?" And I began to think maybe he had indulged in a little something before coming to the museum.

"You know," he philosophized, "I like to define artists many times as poets. Then I like to think, 'if this painter is a poet, what is he expressing or what is he talking about or what is his main theme?' And when I think of Hopper, I always think of the word 'destiny.' I have the feeling that something is coming or something is going to happen. It's as though his characters are portrayed caught up in this space where the future is out there somewhere. They're staring off into it. It's almost the experience you feel looking out of your own eyes."

"In Santa Barbara," she objected, "you would have the mountains and trees. And the tree would never look like that [the dead one]. The tree is almost like a ghost. Santa Barbara is always crowded with people, you know. It's never, never empty like that. This thing [the park] would not be empty. There would be something on the street, either a biker or whatever. It's just like so strange. Why is nobody's there [sic]?"

"How you feel about it," the man jumped back in, "and the painter feels about it, and how I feel about it could be completely different. But, therein probably lies one of the great attractions of fine art. I guess you could go on ad infinitum about how they make you feel."

The next guy I interviewed was lanky and gaunt-cheeked, with hair graying at the temples. He wore a button-down shirt over a white T-shirt, carrying a light coat over his forearm.

"Some are, some aren't," he answered with a slightly distracted air and a tight voice. He jerked his forearm toward the painting. "Hopper did a subject that was representative of a scene. It's not supposed to be generalized as this is all of society or this is all of anything. It's just my depiction of a particular subject. There are people in this town who are really out there and involved with each other, part of the community. And there are people who are on the down-and-outs who are like the people in the Hopper painting. You can't generalize. And it's not, you know, an either/or. There's some shades of one or the other."

"So," I asked, "you might be found at a café, like in a Hopper painting, staring off into space?"

"I could be found at a museum, too," he said, "just like a Hopper character." We both laughed, then he concluded, "I go to a museum as part of a connection to a long history of art and to culture."

That exhausted my possibilities of talking to other patrons, so I approached the guards. One was a tall blond girl from L.A. with brown eyes and freckles. "Hopper's isolation is of a city," she began. "And Santa Barbara," she emphasized, "is not a city. Not a 'city' city really. There's not that isolated loneliness."

The other guard was a 50-year-old Santa Barbara native. He wore glasses, and his gray-haired head slung forward from his neck like a turtle's.

"Art is a rich man's game," he shrugged. He had the slow nasal delivery of a well-educated effete. "The artworks here are treated better than the humans. I remember Santa Barbara in the '60s, but it's totally changed. It's become very commercialized, very touristy. It was always a haven for the wealthy. But more so now. Here it's just like rich or poor. There's nothing in between. We are the blue-collar workers."

"My mother and my father bought their house--this was a three-bedroom Spanish-style house here in Riviera, a nice area--back in '63 for like $26,000. Two people can afford that. But now, I mean it's up there near close to a million. It's a rip-off. The cost of living is outrageous. I hate it for that. I mean I'm from here, but I don't appreciate that part. All the other people come, and they love Santa Barbara. And they tell me, 'Oh it's so beautiful; I love your city.' But they're just visiting. It's just like any place. You live here: that's another story."

This area has always been prime real estate. The local Chumash Indians established a town here called Syukhtun, meaning, "where the trail divides." In the 1760s, Spanish King Carlos III established Mission Santa Barbara here. The beam-and-adobe-sided mission had two bell towers that were symbols of the city and reminded me of the church tower in Hopper's November, Washington Square.

Being "where the trail divides," Santa Barbara first gained notice as a travelers' stop. The first Overland Stagecoach arrived in 1861. It became a base for forays into the surrounding hills and valleys. Tired of being a stagecoach stop, in the 1920s Santa Barbara played up its relation to Colonial Spain to drum up tourism and business. Soon, Santa Barbara enjoyed a reputation as the film capital of the world. Not only were the first movies filmed here, but the original "Hollywood"--Flying A Studios--was located in town. There are still Hopperesque old theaters here like the Arlington and Granada.

The history museum's back patio was kept like the Mission's. Surrounded by low-eaved, Spanish-style roofs, a flat base of reddish dirt was dotted with trees, large rocks, statues, and a hexagonal fountain. The woman behind the front counter was older, matronly, and tall, enough so that I could tell even though she was sitting down. Gray hair fluffed out around her ears. She wore a gray dress with daisies hand painted on it and had on thick red lipstick.

"The word that comes to me," she began, "is not isolation: it's loneliness. I lived in New York, and was in boarding school out here during the '30s. You know, you're kind of isolated there [at a boarding school]. So I didn't see scenes like Nighthawks. That's all I have to say, and that's all I know."

"Would people in Santa Barbara be lonely like that?" I prodded.

"Oh, I don't think so," she defended. "I think it's a period in our history. It's an era of the nineteen-what, the '30s? '20s and '30s. I remember them well. If you want to know about Santa Barbara, you should hurry to the courthouse. A girl there will be giving a tour in just a couple of minutes."

At the courthouse, I was the only one on the "tour," and the "girl" turned out to be an older woman named Theresa. On June 29, 1925 (she informed me), a huge earthquake had leveled the old courthouse and State Street. The new courthouse was open to the elements, and lanterns had accumulated along the walls because Spanish sailors would donate a lantern to the church in any town where they landed. The designer liked the idea that a white building should be asymmetrical, so many arbitrary forms and details had been added. Theresa said someone on one of her tours asked if he was drunk when he designed it.

The locals joked that The Statue of Justice atop the courthouse holds a California surfboard because her sword is resin-covered redwood. The tower attached gave a panoramic view of the city, bay and surrounding hills.

At the visitors information center at the base of Stearns Wharf--the longest, oldest working wooden wharf in California--the woman behind the counter wore a heavy brown dress with black lapels and cuffs, and she had a pinched face, making her look like the kind of girl in grade school who would rat on you.

"No," she responded curtly about Santa Barbara being isolated. "There are so many different things going on and so much cultural activity that's all really accessible. It's not like a big city, where it's so hard to get through everything. We've got the best of both worlds. That's why people want to live here. We've got the big-city culture but the small-town ease of access. Plus there's like 900 nonprofits here. Most people are involved in one or another as volunteers."

I asked where I might find Hopperesque people, and she said, "Oh all over downtown, you'll see a lot of creative people, a lot of semi-homeless people, a lot of just plain weird people."

She then directed me to the restaurant Super Rica, which a friend in L.A. had recommended to me as a foodie Mecca.

Super Rica was a white building with garish green trim; the ceiling sloped down so low I bumped my head entering. As I waited in the notorious line, I overheard behind me one older lady said to an older couple, "You're not going to Hawaii this year?" "No," the man answered, "we haven't been since that time we saw you there. It's so nice here. Why would you want to leave?"

I sat at a table with a hefty, forty-something couple drinking beers with limes in them. He was balding on top and had a gray beard. Above his dark checkered shirt beamed a big, friendly face with a round nose and brown eyes with creases underneath.

"No," he answered assuredly. "No. And I studied art history, so… I know exactly who Edward Hopper is and what that kind of isolation is. Well," he pulled up, "Santa Barbara's very cliquish. People get really involved in their group and they end up with blinders on to a lot of other things. We're not necessarily isolated as in being all alone, but you're isolated in hanging out with the same people."

They shook their heads as the husband told me, "It's changed in the last forty years--a lot! I was born and raised here, and all the people I knew growing up are gone, due to the cost of living and whatnot."

"I moved here in '75," she offered, "and it's changed dramatically since then." She had light green eyes, red hair, and freckled skin. She was draped in a gray sweater on which hung a large silver pendant. "When I moved here, there was very little. When you wanted to party, you went to somebody's house 'cause there was no place to go. And now it's just ridiculous."

"That's one of the ways its changed so dramatically," he offered. "When I grew up, there was no nightlife at all. Now, they've opened the entire downtown length of State Street. You'll find definitely a lot of very interesting Hopperesque characters down there, definitely." And he roared with laughter.

[State Street preacher]

[State Street landscaping]

State Street was the town's gathering place to overcome isolation: the passers-by were a culturally diverse polyglot. Cycling taxis plied the streets, despite ordinances restricting them. Many of their drivers were homeless people trying to make some money. The city instead set up tourist shuttle buses and hired the homeless to drive them. But the driver of the one I got on was belligerent.

Everybody told me that Santa Barbara also had a lot of homeless and a lot of non-profit associations. (One local quipped, "It's because we have so many for-profit residents.") That tradition goes back to the Depression, when Lillian Child let hobos live on her manor grounds. When she died, the city burned her house and kicked the people off of the land. This was part of a backlash. In the 1980s, the city passed laws that allowed them to arrest many homeless, and some merchants poured bleach on their garbage to discourage foraging, earning the town a reputation as the worst place in America for the homeless. November, Washington Square is a cold time and place. I could see someone from Hopper's painting seeking out better fortunes in Santa Barbara. But sometimes, it seems cold wherever you go.

Outside a coffee shop that promised "liquid culture" lounged a Goth guy in three-inch soled shoes, an all-black outfit, and a thick set of silver chains around his neck. He had a frizzy Mohawk dyed black and a lip pierced at both ends to look like vampire fangs. I imagined it took a lot of money to keep up that "outsider" look.

Inside, a bright yellow T-shirt draped the rail-thin 6'2" frame of the guy behind the counter. His thinness lent him prominent cheek bones and a pointy chin that held the thickest part of his scruffy beard. Above his piercing green eyes, one curl of gelled hair drooped across his forehead.

"I was born here," he answered, his thin pink lips barely moving as he spoke, "raised just outside. But once I got a car at seventeen, I was here the whole time." He leaned a hip against the café counter and leaned on his elbow on the counter. "And at nineteen, I went off to Dallas and New Orleans, and then came back. It's definitely my home town, and I love it, but I'm kind of like an outsider because I've lived in New Orleans; I know what crime is. Like walking around here all my life, I have no fear walking the streets at 3:00 in the morning. But a lot of people here don't even realize. I took a friend of mine from here to New Orleans, and she wasn't comprehending at all. She was intrigued by it. Like if someone was getting robbed right next to her, she'd stop and stare. I'm like, 'No, just lower your head and walk away. Otherwise, you'll probably get shot or robbed as well.' That's a total Santa Barbara thing. With the youth, they don't really realize it 'cause they haven't gotten out. So I would say sheltered but not like emotionally isolated. They're not emotionally mature enough to be in a Hopper painting."

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